Anecdotes galore from working in Ukraine’s tiny neighbour.
- Putin on the agony
It is very disconcerting to arrive at a near deserted airport to be greeted by a military squad presenting arms. This was my first visit to Moldova and very nearly my last.
I had flown in from Vienna with a colleague to run training workshops for UNICEF. It was mid-June 2000, and we were in for a series of unsettling surprises.
At the terminal we discovered that the parading troops were practising for the imminent arrival of newly elected Russian President Vladimir Putin, keen to consolidate support among past soviet republics.
Then we discovered that all our luggage, including a suitcase full of training materials (long before we had a laptop and a beamer) and western newspapers had gone missing.
I was suitably indignant at the inconvenience and insisted that airport officials arrange to locate our belongings and get them sent on to us smartly. Our UNICEF host insisted that I calm down and comply instead. The officials had forms to fill in. We were required to describe the colour and size of the missing suitcases and provide details of every single item in each of our cases, giving the colour and approximate cost of everything. The bewildering paperwork seemed to take forever, and still the troops went through their paces on the tarmac outside.
Only when we had got through with the bureaucratic niceties were we informed that, providing our luggage could be traced, we would have to wait at least until the weekend since there were few scheduled flights from Vienna to Chisinau. It was a Thursday and we were travelling on to a sanatorium in a remote village the next day, so we would have to make do without fresh clothes and our carefully prepared materials.
As we drove into Chisinau the streets seemed unusually empty for a capital city. In preparation for Putin, we were told, all the shops had been orderd to shut early. Then as we attempted to check in at our hotel we were politely informed that our rooms had been allocated to Putin’s security detail. We were unceremoniously directed to another hotel.
With no change of clothes our first priority was to buy some, among other basic necessities. (Note-to-self: always carry on a change of underwear and a washbag when flying.) It was late afternoon when we set off and almost all the shops were closed. Whole streets had been cordoned off. We ran into lockdown wherever we turned.
Eventually, down a back street, we came across one of those gloriously pokey Soviet-style shopping mini-malls, designed to function in the coldest of wintry weathers.
There were still staff in some of the ‘boutique style’ shops, and we bargained for underwear and night clothes.
My colleague had to settle for unbefitting summer pajamas, short in leg and arm.
I managed to find one pair of lightweight underpants, the most uncomfortable boxers I ever did wear. They have been preserved for posterity, the patterns and elastic still intact.
By the time we were back out on the streets modest crowds had gathered by the main roads. Apparently this was not altogether spontaneous. Residents had been ‘encouraged’ to show themselves on Putin’s route through the city. It was not clear whether the police were directing traffic or the spectators. Curious to witness the arrival of the new Russian premier, I collected my camera from the hotel and joined the throng at a vantage point to sneak a photo of the sleek limos as they made their way downhill into the centre of Chisinau.
Suddenly I was being jostled, and the voices of myriad strangers whispered “Security!” Sure enough, two menacing figures were making their way towards me as if from nowhere. I held up my camera and quickly pocketed it, apologetically explaining “Tourist, tourist!” One wagged his finger at me, and I backed out of the crowd; both frowned before nodding their heads as they watched my retreat. I made my way back sheepishly to the hotel, glancing over my shoulder to make sure I was not being followed.
I wondered if these were the Russians gents who had taken over our hotel rooms.
Landlocked Moldova has a chequered history with a fluctuating relationship with Russia and the Soviet Union. The region, variously known over centuries as Moldavia and Bessarabia, has at times been part of Romania, Ukraine and the Czarist Russian Empire.
Its president at the time was Communist Party stalwart Petru Lucinschi who was showing signs of a lean towards Europe. A veteran of the USSR and ten years older than former KGB man Putin, Lucinschi would only last another year as Moldovan President.
Leaving them to their discussions, we were up early next morning to clamber aboard onto a dilapidated coach and we set off with a team of young journalists to a run down sanatorium near the village of Holercani on the Dniester river. The centre piece of the courtyard was an empty fountain complete with a gigantic green concrete frog.
The place had seen better days and while the trainees found rooms in the main building, my colleague and I were allocated to a small outhouse. All the rooms were large, damp and in a distressed state. In one the toilet was leaking. Here we had to re-plan a 3-day training programme about reporting on children’s rights, bereft of a change of clothes, training materials including acetates for overhead projection, and the internet.
Necessity being the mother of invention and lateral thinking coming naturally to journalists we rejigged the programme to be even more interactive than usual. UNICEF’s flip charts came in very handy.
During one break we were able to take a stroll through the woods above the Dniester river. Hidden iaway and out of bounds were the luxury holiday homes of Party apparatchiks. Across the river lay the disputed territory of Transnistria.
Back in 1990 in the era of perestroika, and in advance of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moldova had declared itself an independent republic. Almost simultaneously the Transnistrian region, stretching from the Dniester River to a 400 kilometre long border with Ukraine, declared itself the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. Russia intervened to end the civil war that followed. Thirty years later Transnistria remains in the hands of Russian backed separatists. Ironically, having taken no formal position on the current war in Ukraine, they have welcomed in those refugees who made it across the border.
Oh yes. Back in June 2000, our bags did arrive, just in time for us to take them home.
2. Anyone for sex or violence?
Later that same month I was back in Chisinau, with the World Health Organisation. A large contingent of medics, government ministers and health correspondents from Central and Eastern Europe and the Caucasus were accommodated in the very hotel from which we had been so unceremoniously ejected a week earlier.
The local hosts were keen to show that NATO was among the sponsors of the event, which was supposed to be about developing public health campaigns. Our first task was to persuade them to downplay the NATO element, since many of the participants came from jurisdictions where NATO was anathema. Having achieved that diplomatic task, it was down to work.
Each country delegation was required to identify a health concern which might affect whole swathes on their country and develop a public health campaign to deal with it. As luck would have it I was allocated the Azeri delegates to work with.
After some deliberation the delegate from the health ministry announced that the pollution of the Caspian Sea should be the focus of their campaign. Not only was it affecting fishing communities along its coast, but there were broader economic and health consequence further inland.
At first this seems a reasonable enough issue to tackle. Was this because of oil spills from the innumerable oil rigs that pepper their coastal waters, I asked. “No, no!” insisted the man from the ministry. It was all caused by landlocked Armenia pumping nuclear waste from faulty power stations into the Aras river which flowed into the Kura and thence to the Caspian Sea.
This was literally explosive stuff; the sort of the campaigning that can lead to war. It was not something to make a song and dance about at an international gathering of this kind. Little evidence was being offered apart from wild assertions a representative from Armenia’s hostile neighbour. While it was true that water used in the cooling of a nuclear reactor emptied into the Aras River, so too did many other toxins from human and animal waste, fertilisers and pesticides.
Added to which, on my first visit to Azerbaijan I had been horrified to see the filthy state of its coastline running south from the capital Baku. It was an environmental nightmare. Thick black sludge covered the rocks for miles. Out at sea the oil rigs provided some indication of the likely source. The spoiled coastline is nowhere to be see nowadays. More recent oil wealth that has paid for the startling transformation of Baku has also been responsible for a massive coastal clear up.
It is often forgotten that Azerbaijan was the centre of the world’s oil production at the turn of the 20th century. Its oil had been traded for millennia. I would later ask older Azeri journalists to talk to me about oil spills in the Caspian. True to form, as slaves to the whims of the Aliyev dynasty, they would deny that any such thing could ever have occurred. A western safety expert who had worked on the rigs acknowledged that there had indeed been ‘accidents’ to which the wrecked shoreline was testament.
Back at the Chisinau conference, I thought it prudent not to include the distinctly dubious provenance of the sensationalist claims in my report to the plenary session, quite apart from the fact that hatred is the most dangerous poison. I concentrated instead on the problems caused to fishermen and the food chain by unspecified pollutants.
As with so many hotels of that era, each floor housed a surly ‘matron’ who kept an eye on all things domestic. However it was hard to believe she was responsible for what happened around 9pm every evening. One after another you would hear the phone in each room ring and a woman’s voice would ask if you would like a sexual visitor. It was all very politely done, regardless of your sex. She got short shrift from me. At breakfast it was everyone’s complaint, but no one knew what to do.
After two days of this I was convinced the pattern the calls required access to a switchboard. As everyone gathered in the huge hotel lobby at the start of the next day, I made a loud complaint about the practice at the reception desk, pointing out they could only have come from the venerable switchboard under their sole control. There were gasps of denial from the staff, but I was well pleased by the spontaneous round of applause from my conference colleagues.
And strangely enough the calls stopped coming from that day on. However this did not go down too well with my Azeri colleague. It turned out he had availed himself of the service and was disappointed to have his coitus interrupted.
All was forgiven and forgotten when he serenaded us with some spirited singing as we all relaxed over a farewell meal in cavern at a local film studio.